Yes, Italy has something of a reputation for ‘fearless’ drivers and yes, the roads in Tuscany are notoriously twisty turny, but don’t let this put you off exploring by car. Ditch that wide wheeled Chelsea Tractor and join the cool club with a cheeky Cinquecento that will help you negotiate narrow tracks and hug those hairpin bends with a touch more confidence.
Most Tuscans treat the beach in a similar fashion to their seasonal wardrobe in as much as come the autumn it needs to be mothballed and rarely visited until summer temperatures begin to rise. This leaves travelers with beaches bereft of people where solitude can be sought under statuesque pines and dips in the Med, even in October, can be wonderfully warm; well, by northern European standards anyway.
Swapping two legs for four lets you experience Etruscan hillsides from a whole new perspective with wide tracks through vineyards and olive groves combining with wooded ridgelines and views over the Arno Valley. Informal riding and language lessons, and days out of the saddle in Arezzo, Orvieto or Assisi, add to the laid back ambience, with picnics and BBQs in Chianti offering a chance to soak up the views from ground level.
Situated in the southeast of Tuscany is the rather remarkable town of Pitigliano, whose nickname, Piccola Gerusalemme or Little Jerusalem, offers insight as to just part of the attraction. Aside from the former Jewish quarter and a walk around the walls, Pitigliano is all about the approach with ancient tufa rock carvings offering an amazing example of Etruscan architecture rarely glimpsed by the Chiantishire jet set.
Eating out in Tuscany is certainly not something to be confined to the evening and definitely not just for expensive restaurants yards from the Ponte Vechhio or Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Lunch in Tuscany is the most important meal of the day with shops closing – pausa pranzo – from 1pm until 4pm; so, when in Rome and all that. Top tip: stumble over a tiny trattoria without tourist menus or inflated prices.
Il sole, la terra and la colline (the hills) all combine to create Tuscany’s fabled Sangiovese grape and sampling the produce of vines surrounding Montefioralle, Montalcino and Montepulciano, will put a smile on your face as wide as the Arno. From a blood red, oak-infused Chianti to the crisp, citrus flavours of a white Vernaccia di San Gimignano; wine tasting tours in Tuscany have got legendary status sealed in.
We’re not talking following a tour guide with a telescopic umbrella here. Small group vacations in Tuscany are all about discovering the region through the eyes of a local. You’ll get to know what they recommend as you learn about the landscapes, the history and the most important highlights of the region on an enjoyable, personable and memorable experience without a brolly in sight, hopefully.
San Gimignano is going to be busy and entering through the Porta San Giovanni will place you right onto the main street of Via San Giovani which leads to the Piazza del Duomo. Stepping off the tourist track is extremely easy and there's a wonderful walk around the perimeter of the city as well as plenty of affordable and authentic places to eat if you have the time to explore.
Although an organised coach tour may appear a less stressful alternative to driving it won’t necessarily give you as authentic an experience as you might have hoped for. Watching the clock and sightseeing en masse chucks you into a whirl of tourist tat and machine gun photography with little or no time to rest, explore and enjoy places away from the souvenir stores and over-priced restaurants.
Lucca, Florence, Siena, Pisa, San Gimi-watsit! Arrghhh. Sometimes what was meant to be a stress-free week away can turn into more of a medieval nightmare. Don’t overdo it. Spend an afternoon by the pool or linger a little longer over lunch. Those medieval ramparts have been there a while and, you know what, they’ll still be there next time you come back.
The essence of Tuscan dining is whatever’s in season, served simply. You know the sort of thing: freshly picked basil, tomatoes straight from the vine, a splash of olive oil, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Although expensive restaurants will often offer an inviting ambience nothing beats rustic dining well done so do yourself a favour and swap Michelin in Florence for mozzarella on a hillside - you won’t regret it.
Pinocchio paraphernalia is everywhere with an army of carved wooden boys swinging from key rings and anything else you care to mention. Michelangelo's David also features amongst the tourist tat with 'saucy' aprons and postcards depicting parts that other souvenirs simply cannot reach. Don't expect these sorts of keepsakes to have been made in the area but if you're looking for cheap and cheerful...